Over the past decade, the nation’s capital has come out of the shadows of leading technology hubs in the United States.
Referred to by some as “Silicon Hill,” Washington, D.C., ranked first in the number of startups and fundable investors per million residents, among states like New York, California and Nevada, according to a 2013 report by Fast Company. Many of these new companies specialize in high-tech offerings that aim to create easier ways to navigate social and business life for their consumers.
Not only are consumers at an advantage, but competitive opportunities for IT professionals are constantly rising as the D.C. tech culture is made of organizations and groups that are strategically formed to defy traditional academic and social requirements.
Peter Corbett started iStrategyLabs six years ago in his Logan Circle apartment. Now a leading tech company in D.C., iStrategyLabs creates everything from apps, to animations, to massive festivals and social strategies to transform organizations. Last year, the company employed 20 people. It kicked off 2014 with 30 employees and grew to 50 over the next seven months.
The growth of iStrategyLabs has stemmed from Corbett’s ability to look beyond accolades on paper and search for team members with proven skills.
“I have no idea if our employees went to Harvard, a community college or a state school — it doesn’t really matter to us,” says Corbett. “What matters to us is can they demonstrate that they have the ability to build or design something, or manage the creation of an organization or a campaign.”
Jason Nellis, founder of Overachiever Media, a Washington, D.C.-based content marketing and media production company, takes a similar approach. He’s adapted an eye for seeking attributes in his contract workers that may not be found on a résumé.
“I try to look at the whole picture — I’d say education and work experience is certainly a part of it, but I think extracurricular [activities] can have just as meaningful an impact,” says Nellis. “Oftentimes in the modern world, we tend to think of people as having certain roles, but the reality is very different from that — it requires an ability to be responsive.
“So what I look for is indications that people have had responsibilities and roles where they have had to think on their feet and respond at the drop of a hat to changes.”
As the cost of higher education rises, contributing to mounds of student loan debt for graduates, there is reassurance in the notion that it takes more than a degree in computer science from a four-year institution to enter the tech field.
Those interested in technology, but cannot afford the price of college, can turn to developing projects such as #YesWeCode, co-founded by Van Jones, co-host of CNN’s Crossfire. After the establishment of #YesWeCode’s online platform, underserved youth will be united with grassroots programs that provide accelerated tech training.
Ultimately, the movement will help train 100,000 participants to become high-level computer coders.
Incorporating individuals with varying perspectives, experiences and backgrounds is vital for the U.S. to remain competitive as a global force in STEM.
In the District, Nellis sees this value and strays from working with individuals who look and sound exactly like him.
“It opens me to opportunities and ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise have,” he says.
In 2013, Corbett saw the importance of creating a distinct culture at iStrategyLabs by making it an explicit priority to focus on diversity among his executive team and across the entire company.
“It’s one thing for a CEO to say that internally; it’s another thing for a CEO to do that publicly and it’s also another to actually put that into practice,” says Corbett.
An eight-member community engagement committee, four of whom are from diverse ethnicities, leads the charge in iStrategyLabs’ recruitment.
“It turns out if you read any literature or just have the experience, that if the people who hire in your organization are just White males, they have natural biases and may naturally feel more comfortable with other White males. So the recruitment at iStrategyLabs needs to be led by a diverse group on our staff so that people who are interviewing with us feel comfortable and feel like we value diversity,” says Corbett.
Following suit with major tech companies like Google, which recently released statistics on the makeup of its employees, Corbett wrote a blog post in May titled “Diversity at iStrategyLabs by the Numbers.” In it, he outlined that the composition of the iStrategyLabs team is 43 percent female and 33 percent from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
While Google has received criticism for its data — for example, 3 and 2 percent of Google’s U.S. employees are Hispanic and Black, respectively — Corbett has higher optimism that at least half of iStrategyLab’s workforce will vary in ethnicity in the coming years with the help of a collective audience.
“The reason I did [the blog post] is because I want the community that we’re a part of to hold our feet to the fire and I want the rest of our industry to do the same thing and not be shy about speaking up on diversity, whether it’s from an ethnic, gender or sexual orientation background,” says Corbett.
Building a community
After coming to D.C. from New York in 2005, Corbett noticed that industry professionals weren’t communicating with one another, so he has also made it his mission to galvanize an array of individuals together on citywide platforms.
“Essentially, my arc as a community organizer went from bringing 20 people together at a Caribou Coffee on 17th and L to convening DCWEEK,” says Corbett.
With a turnout of over 12,000 people, Digital Capital Week, last held in 2012, is a 10-day festival that garnered fanfare for its resources for D.C.-based innovators.
Startup incubator 1776, which recently was visited by President Obama, is taking up where DCWEEK left off. Founded in January 2013 by entrepreneurs Evan Burfield and Donna Harris, 1776 brings together startup founders and investors, helping them with insight and capital to grow their businesses. In May, 1776 held the weeklong Challenge Festival, which culminated with the Challenge Cup, a global competition of 64 startups competing for $650,000 in prizes.
“The Challenge Festival follows the tradition of DCWeek, providing an ideal vehicle for organizations and thought leaders to host events that showcase how Washington, D.C. can mobilize to help solve our generation’s biggest challenges,” a 1776 press release states.
Nellis is also responsible for creating and supporting groups that offer a sense of diverse community in the D.C. tech scene. Overachiever Media sponsors DC Nightowls, an organization that locates weekly destinations in the city to gather startup leaders, entrepreneurs and individual contractors to co-work and to share ideas throughout the night.
Based on density, D.C. may never climb the ranks above the most notable tech districts; however, the culture that is being carved is opening doors for a vast amount of IT professionals by welcoming skilled individuals no matter their race, age, sexual orientation or other traditional discriminatory factors.
“It’s never been about can D.C. beat [Silicon] Valley or New York; it’s always been how can D.C. become the best possible ecosystem for innovators that it can be based on all of its features … I think this is a very promising marketplace,” says Corbett. “It’s been incredible watching this community go from nothing to something and being a part of that has been really fulfilling.”